SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Before a meeting of the Korean neighbors in the second stage of 2022 World Cup qualifying, North Korea must navigate a potentially tricky opening fixture against Lebanon in Pyongyang on Thursday.
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Forty teams are still active on the road to Qatar but only the eight group winners and four best-placed teams progress to the next stage where Asia’s four automatic places in the World Cup are up for grabs.
South Korea, the favorite in Group H, is scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Oct. 15 in a meeting between two countries technically at war.
“We know that North Korea will be tough at home and have World Cup history but we want to get a good start,” Lebanon coach Liviu Ciobotariu said. “In a group that also has South Korea, every game is vital.”
South Korea, looking for a tenth successive World Cup appearance, sits out the first round of games this week, as do all eight top-ranked teams in Asia, and kicks off against Turkmenistan on Tuesday.
Also Thursday, Turkmenistan takes on Sri Lanka, the world’s 200th ranked team. Unlike South Korea, the South Asians are unlikely to progress to the next stage but there is still much at stake.
After the Easter Sunday suicide bombing in Colombo that killed more than 250 people, first round opponent Macau refused to travel to the island for the return leg of their first-round qualifier in June and forfeited the match. Sri Lanka is keen to show that life has returned to normal.
“Terrorists have attacked many developed countries in the past and this does not affect carrying out the affairs of any sport,” the country’s football federation declared in a statement. “Sri Lanka shall enjoy its right to host the home game in Sri Lanka and every county shall respect each other’s right to host similar games.”
Southeast Asia also has plenty to play for. The biggest crowd this week will likely be in Jakarta as Indonesia takes on rival Malaysia in front of what is expected to be 80,000 fans.
Feelings between the two neighbors can run high. According to reports in Malaysia, Football Association of Malaysia president Hamidin Mohd Amin has requested that an armored personnel carrier be on standby.
“We are not worried about the situation at the stadium itself as there are a lot of security personnel from both Malaysia and Indonesia guarding the perimeter,” Hamidin told local media. “But there is a risk of provocation and chaos en route.”
Thailand hosts Vietnam in the same group while Mongolia plays its first ever game in the second round of World Cup qualifying and faces Myanmar.
Elsewhere, 2022 World Cup host Qatar is placed in Group E and kicks off against Afghanistan. Regardless of how the Asian champion performs, it will not progress to the next stage of World Cup qualification. Qatar is involved as the path to the 2022 World Cup has been combined with qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup which will take place in China.